Boating the Intracoastal Waterway

By: Doug Sease

ADD TO FAVORITES
If you’re one of the thousands of boat owners who transports your vessel to or from Florida, chances are you’ll be cruising the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. These expert hints and tips will get you going safely.

It’s good to be reminded occasionally about the reasons you do things.

Moving to Florida, for instance. When I climbed down onto the dock in Hobucken, N.C., to untie the boat, I had to be careful not to slip on the ice that had formed from the pre-dawn dew.

But unmooring or raising the anchor in the chilly hour before the sun rises is a routine task for the thousands of boaters who bring their craft to Florida for the winter. The annual migration of boats to Florida for the winter season is truly astounding. Many boats, of course, arrive on trailers towed behind the owners’ cars. If your vehicle is large enough and your vessel small enough, towing a boat is the best solution: It’s cheap, easy and affords the maximum utilization Florida’s many boating venues.

But for those whose boats are too large to be towed, going to Florida usually means going down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), not-so-fondly known as “The Ditch.”

My job on that frosty morning was to serve as crewman under Capt. Tom Tiller (yes, that’s his real name), a veteran mariner who, with his wife Sue, runs Y Worry Marine Services out of Maine. While I was slipping and sliding on the dock, he was comfortably ensconced in the pilot house of the 70-foot custom aluminum motor yacht we were delivering to Palm Beach for the owner. I threw the last line aboard and scrambled to get myself back up as the bow thruster pushed us into the waterway. But I still had to coil and stow lines as the boat picked up speed. Nineteen knots may not sound very fast, but on a 32-degree morning, the wind chill is painful to someone whose blood has been thinned by the Florida sun.

Tom and I had rendezvoused at the Norfolk, Virginia, airport two days earlier and taken a taxi to the Atlantic Yacht Basin in Great Bridge where the owner had stored the boat after a summer of cruising in New England. While I did the quarter-mile hike to the grocery store several times to provision us for six days of traveling, Tom changed the engine oil and checked out all the boat’s complex systems as well as the weather forecast.


The forecast called for a frontal system to pass through the area the next day, to be followed by several days of northerly winds that would be as high as 35 knots the first day, dropping steadily thereafter to 15 knots or so. Our plan was to take the ICW as far as Morehead City, N.C., where we would refuel. If the winds remained above 15 knots, we would go offshore at Morehead City and hug the curve of the coast to Masonboro Inlet, a deep and safe inlet that would allow us to re-enter the ICW and avoid going some 20 miles offshore to get around Frying Pan Shoal, the biggest obstacle after Cape Hatteras for boats traveling south. The ICW would then take us to Southport, N.C., where we would once again jump offshore for the long trek to Palm Beach.

Over the years I’ve done the ICW route to Florida maybe two dozen times, either bringing my own 46-foot aluminum sailboat, Galaxie, from New York or Maine to Florida, or helping Tom deliver various boats for his clients.

The first time down the ICW is fascinating. The scenery changes slowly, ranging from the shadowy forests that line the banks of the Wacamaw River to the vast plains of marsh grass that stretch out for miles in every direction in South Carolina and Georgia. The second time down the ICW is interesting, the third time boring and the fourth time excruciating. The narrow ICW forces you to pay close attention to navigation and to steer constantly instead of relying on the autopilot as most sailors do offshore. Unless you are indeed a bold sailor, you can’t or shouldn’t try to navigate the twists and turns of the ICW at night, so you wind up anchoring or tying up at a marina each night.

Bridges are another problem. While fewer in number today than 20 years ago when I made my first ICW trip, the lift bridges with their restricted schedules for opening determine your schedule. The bridge tenders are invariably polite and friendly, but if they see you aren’t in range to make an opening, they have little choice but to shut the bridge and stick you with a half hour or hour wait for the next opening.

But by far the biggest problem in navigating the ICW is the depth. When the waterway was constructed, it was intended to be used by commercial barge traffic. The mandated depth was set at 13 feet. But fewer and fewer barge operators use the waterway and the Army Corps of Engineers has neglected maintenance over the years. While the official depth is still set at 12 feet, I’ve been hard aground in Galaxie with her six-foot draft squarely between the channel markers. Power boaters often ask why sailboats don’t sail down the waterway. Having your sails up when you go aground unexpectedly is like having a 100-horsepower engine in gear that you can’t turn off or put into neutral. The wind just drives you harder and harder aground.

For power boats, of course, the danger is bending or breaking a propeller. The ICW has gotten so bad that Capt. Tiller won’t travel in the waterway south of Southport, N.C. Tearing up the running gear on a 70-foot boat is an expensive proposition. If the weather doesn’t cooperate for an offshore passage to Florida, he sits at the dock waiting for it to change.

Except for the cold at the northern end, our delivery went uneventfully, as most do. The worst weather came as we crossed Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. The sound is a wide expanse of shallow water that gets very rough in strong winds. As we moved further south the winds eased, although the high-pressure system ushered in a few cold nights. Once at sea we stayed fairly close to shore to avoid the worst of the waves, but we still had a bit of roll and heave from the following seas.

Traveling 24 hours a day requires setting up a watch schedule so that someone is always awake, keeping an eye out for other boats and changing course when necessary. Capt. Tiller prefers a watch schedule of three hours on and three off. I like the three hours on part, but the three hours off is barely enough time to fall into a deep sleep before you’re up again. I keep a coffee pot going all the time on the premise that it’s better to be alert for three hours and have some trouble falling asleep when off watch than to take a chance of being drowsy on watch. And sure enough, I had to change course off Charleston, S.C., to avoid a container ship and Tom had to dodge a big ship coming out of the St. Johns River at Jacksonville, Florida, but that’s not unusual on the heavily trafficked Eastern Seaboard.

The trip south to Palm Beach from Great Bridge took four full days, one and a half in the ICW and two and a half offshore. That doesn’t include a day to get ready and a day to clean up the boat in Palm Beach. We did only 11 knots at sea to conserve fuel.

Boat Transport Tips

If you want to bring your own boat to Florida, my advice is to do the trip yourself if you have the time, at least the first time. It’s a great experience. If I’ve been in Maine on Galaxie for the summer, it generally takes about three weeks to get to Florida. That includes some stops along the way, such as a visit to New York (where the crowds and intensity remind me again of why I moved to Florida) and a night or two in Charleston, S.C., to enjoy the huge variety of great Southern food. I can do it a little faster if I spend more time offshore sailing 24 hours a day, but that depends on having the right weather. Often, there’s too little wind for sailing or way too much for comfort.

If you can’t make the trip yourself, there are plenty of delivery skippers who will bring your boat south for you. But be aware that different skippers have different philosophies about delivering boats.

Capt. Tiller does deliveries not so much because he wants to, but as a concession to his clients. As a result, he wants to get the job done and get home. He won’t take chances, but unlike most delivery crews, he’s always looking for every opportunity to run around the clock. At $700 a day plus expenses for the services of Capt. Tiller and a crewman, that willingness to run 24 hours can mean a substantial savings compared to delivery skippers who tie up every night at marinas and eat in restaurants, all on the owner’s tab.

For big powerboats, fuel is usually the biggest expense of a delivery trip (but it really doesn’t count because you would be using the same amount of fuel if you were running your own boat). Our trip cost the owner about $4,000, including our airfares and food. Considering that he now has his big comfortable boat tied up in Palm Beach for the winter, that sounds like a bargain to me.

More By Doug Sease

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22 comments
Tony Clark
Tony Clark December 25, 2012 12:00 AM
I am considering buying a 38 ocean going houseboat in Hickory NC.. I would want to take it to Ft Lauderdale. Would that have to go by truck to Charlston SC? If so, do you know anyone in the business of hauling a houseboat over the road about 4 to 5 hours?
I want to drive my 31' center console boat from boca raton to tampa bay. Can you suggest the best route?
My wife and I are planning a trip to philadelphia in late Sept. We would like some information as to wether we could hire/rent a Cruiser, approx. 35-40 ft. long and suitable to live aboard for one week. Are there any Hire Companies available and contact details would be appreciated. I am an ex Seaman and a retired Fireman and we both have a lot of experience of cruising on the River Shannon here in Ireland. Any advice or recomendations.?
Yours Gerard J. Mahony.
Hello I'm visiting here in Astor and boating the saint johns river and would like to
Know the laws on open containers while boating.
Please respond as soon as you can.
Thank you
my boyfriend and i are planning to buy a 28 ft mariner..we oplan on takinng from albany ny to fl...can u suggest where to begin researching? we are new boaters.
I have a 23 ft Westerly sailboat docked in fort myers, fl. I want to. take the boat to Ft Lauderdale, FL. What route would you recommend.
wanted to know if any commercial private yacht take on a few folks for a short trip up and down inter coastal for 4 to 7 days.
I know some of these captained boats need to go out every so often to maintain the ships integrity. We could go and help defray the cost.